Until the 20th cent. the term Syria generally denoted those lands of the Levant, or eastern littoral of the Mediterranean, that correspond to modern Syria and Lebanon, most of Israel and Jordan, W Iraq, and N Saudi Arabia. Three geographical factors have played major parts in determining the history of Syria—its location on the trade and military routes, its varied topography, and the encroaching desert. Syria has always been an object of conquest, and it has been held by foreign powers during much of its history. One of the earliest settlements was probably at Ugarit; human habitation at Tell Hamoukar in NE Syria dates to at least 4000 B.C. The Amorites, coming c.2100 B.C. from the Arabian peninsula, were the first important Semitic people to settle in the region, and they established many small states.
From the 15th to the 13th cent. B.C. the area probably was part of the empire of the Hittites, although it came under Egyptian rule for long periods during that time. The first great indigenous culture was that of Phoenicia (located mostly in present-day Lebanon), which flourished after 1250 B.C. in a group of trading cities along the coast. In the 10th cent. B.C. two Hebrew kingdoms were organized in Palestine (see also Jews). Syria suffered (11th–6th cent. B.C.) long invasions and intermittent control by the empire of Assyria. Babylonian conquerors also found success in Syria, and Egypt constantly sought to reestablish its position there. The Syrians were subjected to massacres, plundering, and forced deportations.
Under the Persian Empire, with its efficient administrative system, Syria's standard of living improved (6th–4th cent. B.C.). Alexander the Great conquered Syria between 333 and 331 B.C., and his short-lived empire was followed by that of the Seleucidae (see Seleucus I), who are usually called kings of Syria. Their control of Syria was constantly threatened by Egypt, which was ruled by the Ptolemies. The Egyptians usually held the south until Antiochus III conquered (early 2d cent. B.C.) the region, which was generally called Coele Syria, a name which had been vaguely applied to all of W Syria. The Seleucids founded cities and military colonies and introduced Hellenistic civilization to Syria. Syria long showed the revivifying effects of this new culture. Many of the cities became cultural Hellenistic centers, but the change did not reach the lower levels of the population.
When invasions began again, first by the Armenians under Tigranes and then by the Parthians—both in the 1st cent. B.C.—the Hellenistic sheen was soon dulled. The Romans under Pompey conquered the region by 63 B.C., but they continued to fight the Parthians there, and the Syrians benefited little from the Roman presence. Many changes in administration occurred, and Rome drew from Syria numerous soldiers and slaves. The old pagan gods of Syria were also taken up by the Romans. More significant for the future of Syria, Christianity was started in Palestine and soon exerted some influence over all of Syria; St. Paul was converted from Judaism to Christianity on the road to Damascus. In central Syria, Palmyra grew (3d cent. A.D.) to considerable power as an autonomous state, but it was conquered by the Romans when it threatened their ascendancy.
After the division of Rome into the Eastern and Western empires in the 4th cent., Syria came under Byzantine rule. In the 5th and 6th cent. Monophysitism, a Christian heresy with political overtones, gained many adherents in Syria. Byzantine control there was seriously weakened by the 7th cent. Between 633 and 640, Muslim Arabs conquered Syria, and during the following centuries most Syrians converted to Islam. Damascus was the usual capital of the Umayyad caliph (661–750) and enjoyed a period of great splendor. The Umayyads were forcibly displaced by the Abbasids, whose residence was in Iraq, thus ending Syria's dominant position in the Islamic world. At the same time the ties between Muslim Syria and the predominantly Christian southwest (later Lebanon) began to loosen.
Groups of Christians remained in the Muslim areas, and they generally rendered aid to the Christians who came to Syria on Crusades (11th–14th cent.). By the late 11th cent. the Seljuk Turks had captured most of Syria, and the Christians fought against them as well as against Saladin, who triumphed (late 12th cent.) over both the Christians and his fellow Muslims. After Saladin's death (1193), Syria fell into disunity, and in the mid-13th cent. it was overrun by the Mongols under Hulagu Khan, who destroyed (1260) much of Aleppo and Damascus, massacring about 50,000 inhabitants of Aleppo. The Mongols were defeated later in 1260 by Baybars, the Mamluk ruler of Egypt.
The Mamluks held control of Syria for most of the time until 1516, when the Ottoman Empire annexed the area. The Mamluk period was largely a time of economic stagnation and political unrest. In 1401 the Central Asian conqueror Timur sacked Aleppo and Damascus. For most of the four centuries of Ottoman control, Syria's economy continued to be weak, and its politics remained fragmented. From the later 16th cent., government in Syria was not directly controlled by the Ottomans but was in the hands of several Syrian families who often fought each other. From the late 18th cent. the European powers took an increasing interest in Syrian affairs, the British as friends of the Druze, the Russians as protectors of the Orthodox Christians, and the French as allies of the Roman Catholics (especially the Maronites).
In 1798–99, Napoleon I of France invaded Egypt and also briefly held parts of the Syrian coast. In 1832–33, Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Muhammad Ali of Egypt, annexed Syria to Egypt. Egypt held Syria until 1840, when the European powers (particularly Great Britain) forced its return to the Ottomans; during this time Syria's economy was revived and numerous schools were established. During the rest of the 19th cent. the Syrian economy was modernized somewhat and educational opportunities were increased. However, conditions were far from good, and growing resentment of Ottoman rule developed among the Syrians. After bloody fighting between Christians and Druze, Lebanon (largely inhabited by Christians) was given considerable autonomy in 1860.
During World War I the British encouraged Syrian nationalists to fight against the Ottoman Empire. The ambitions of the nationalists were thwarted in the peace settlement, which gave (1920) France a League of Nations mandate over the Levant States (roughly present-day Syria and Lebanon). From this time the term Syria referred approximately to its present territorial extent. France divided Syria into three administrative districts on the pretext that political decentralization would safeguard the rights of minorities. The Arab nationalists angrily asserted that decentralization was also a means of maintaining French control by a divide-and-rule policy.
The French made some concessions after serious disturbances in 1925, which included a rebellion by the Druze and the French bombardment of Damascus. Lebanon was made a completely separate state in 1926, and after long negotiations a treaty was signed (1936) giving Syria a large measure of autonomy. Anti-French feeling continued as a result of the cession of the sanjak of Alexandretta (see Hatay) to Turkey, completed in 1939. In the same year the French suspended the Syrian constitution, and in World War II they garrisoned Syria with a large number of troops, most of whom, after the fall of France in June, 1940, declared loyalty to the Vichy government. Relations with Great Britain deteriorated, and when it was discovered that Syrian airfields had been used by German planes en route to Iraq, British and Free French forces invaded and occupied Syria in June, 1941.
In accordance with previous promises, the French proclaimed the creation of an independent Syrian republic in Sept., 1941, and an independent Lebanese republic in Nov., 1941. In 1943, Shukri al-Kuwatli was elected president of Syria, and on Jan. 1, 1944, the country achieved complete independence. However, the continued presence of French troops in Syria caused increasing friction and bloodshed and strained Anglo-French relations. It was not until Apr., 1946, that all foreign troops were withdrawn from the country. In 1945, Syria had become a charter member of the United Nations.
A member of the Arab League, Syria joined other Arab states in the unsuccessful war (1948–49) against Israel (see Arab-Israeli Wars). The defeat at the hands of Israel, coupled with serious internal divisions resulting from disagreements over whether to unite with Iraq (and thus form a "Greater Syria"), undermined confidence in parliamentary government and led to three coups in 1949. Lt. Col. Adib al-Shishakli led the third coup (Dec., 1949), and he governed the country until 1954. A new constitution providing for parliamentary government was promulgated in 1950, but it was suspended in late 1951. From then until 1954, al-Shishakli ruled as a virtual dictator. In 1953 he issued a new constitution establishing a presidential form of government and was elected president.
Opposition to al-Shishakli's one-man rule led to his downfall in 1954 and the reinstitution of the 1950 constitution. After elections in late 1954 a coalition government uniting the People's, National, and Ba'ath parties and headed by Sabri al-Asali of the National party was established; Shukri al-Kuwatli was again elected president. In the following years the Ba'ath party, which combined Arab nationalism with a socialist program, emerged as the most influential political party in Syria. At the same time, in order to offset growing Western influence in the Middle East (exemplified by the creation in 1955 of the Baghdad Pact alliance, later known as the Central Treaty Organization), both Syria and Egypt signed economic and military accords with the USSR.
To counterbalance Soviet influence, Syria joined with Egypt to form (Feb., 1958) the United Arab Republic (UAR). By late 1959, Egypt had become dominant in the UAR, which led to growing Syrian opposition to continued union with Egypt. In Sept., 1961, a group of Syrian army officers seized control of Syria, withdrew the country from the UAR, and established the Syrian Arab Republic. Elections for a constituent assembly were held in late 1961; the assembly chose Maruf al-Dawalibi as prime minister and Nazim al-Qudsi as president of the country; both were conservatives and members of the People's party. In early 1962 a military coup ended this arrangement, and in late 1962 the 1950 constitution was reinstated.
In 1963 another coup brought a joint Ba'ath-military government to power; this regime was headed, at different times, by Salah al-Din al-Bitar, a moderate leader of the Ba'ath party, and by Gen. Amin al-Hafiz. The government nationalized much of the economy and redistributed land to the peasants. At the same time a split between moderate and radical elements in the Ba'ath party was growing. In early 1966 the radicals staged a successful coup and installed Yusseff Zayen as prime minister and Nureddin al-Attassi as president. The new government strengthened Syria's ties with Egypt and the USSR.
Between 1962 and 1966, Syria agitated Israeli interests by attempting to divert headwaters of the Jordan River, by firing on Israeli fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, and by using the Golan Heights to snipe at Israeli settlements. These conflicts contributed to the Arab-Israeli War of June, 1967. During the war Israel captured the Golan Heights (stretching about 12 mi/19 km into Syria northeast of the Sea of Galilee), and it held on to this territory after a cease-fire went into effect. After the war Syria maintained its anti-Israel stance. In 1968–69 the Ba'ath party was again torn by factional strife, and it divided into the "progressives" (led by al-Attassi), who favored state control of the economy and close cooperation with the USSR, and the "nationalists" (headed by Gen. Hafez al-Assad), who emphasized the need to defeat Israel, to improve relations with other Arab states, and to lessen Syria's economic and military dependence on the USSR.
Al-Assad successfully ousted al-Attassi in Nov., 1970. In early 1971, al-Assad was overwhelmingly elected to a seven-year term as president; he was reelected three times. Later in 1971, Syria, Libya, and Egypt agreed to unite loosely in the Federation of Arab Republics. Syria continued to be on good terms with the USSR, which equipped the Syrian army with modern weapons. In early 1973 a new constitution was approved, and the Ba'ath party won 70% of the seats in elections for the people's council. In July–Aug., 1973, about 42 army officers (all Sunni Muslims) were executed after allegedly plotting to assassinate al-Assad, who, they claimed, showed undue favoritism to his fellow Alawite Muslims in the army. (Al-Assad did indeed favor the Alawites in the army and government.)
In Oct., 1973, the fourth Arab-Israeli War erupted; after initial Syrian advances in the Golan Heights, Israel gained the offensive and pushed into Syria a few miles beyond the Golan Heights region. Syria (like Israel) accepted the UN Security Council cease-fire resolution of Oct. 25, 1973, but fighting continued into 1974. In May, 1974, largely through the mediation of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Syria and Israel signed an agreement in Geneva that ended the fighting. Under the terms of the accord, Israel pulled back to the 1967 cease-fire line and also returned the city of Qunaytirah (Kuneitra) to Syria; a buffer zone, patrolled by UN troops, was established in the Golan Heights.
Since the 1970s the rise of Sunni Islamic fundamentalism has challenged Ba'athist ideology. Between 1976 and 1982, urban centers erupted in political unrest. The Muslim Brotherhood, a radical religious and political organization founded in 1928 in Egypt, was largely responsible for extremist attacks. In Feb., 1982, the brotherhood unsuccessfully attempted an uprising in Hama but was quashed by government troops; thousands were killed. Islamic fundamentalists, however, continue to remain active.
In 1976, Syria sent forces to Lebanon as part of a peacekeeping force to help end that country's civil war. The Syrian military remained in Lebanon, and from 1980 to 1981, Syrian troops sided with Lebanese Muslims against the Christian militias. With Israel's invasion of Lebanon in June, 1982, Syrian troops clashed with Israeli forces and were pushed back. Syria was also antagonized by Israel in 1982, when Menachem Begin announced the annexation of the Golan Heights. By the late 1990s, more than 40 Jewish settlements and villages had been developed in the Golan Heights. Although Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 1985, Syrian forces stayed; they remained the dominant military and political force there into 2005.
The Syrian government has been implicated in sponsoring international terrorism, especially in support of Iranian, Palestinian, and Libyan causes. In the 1980s, Syria moved closer to the USSR and espoused hard-line Arab positions. By 1990, however, as the Soviet system faltered, Syria attempted to improve relations with Western countries. That year Syria was the first Arab country to condemn Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and it contributed 20,000 soldiers to the coalition forces in the Persian Gulf War (1991).
Syria, along with Lebanon and a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation, became involved in peace talks with Israel in late 1991. As talks progressed between Israel and the PLO and Jordan, Syria's insistence that Israel withdraw from all of the Golan Heights proved a stumbling block in its own negotiations. Talks broke off in 1996, but the Syrian government appeared interested in renewing negotiations following the installation of a Labor government in Israel in 1999. Talks were resumed in Dec., 1999. After what appeared to be initial progress, discussions stalled in Jan., 2000, when a secret draft treaty with Syrian concessions was published in Israel, leading to a public hardening of Syria's position with respect to the Golan.
In June, 2000, Assad died suddenly. His son, Bashar al-Assad, a 34-year-old doctor who had been groomed to succeed his father since 1994, rapidly became commander in chief of the army, head of the Ba'ath party, and then president. The son was regarded as an advocate of a free-market economy and political change, but economic liberalization proceeded slowly and he maintained a monopoly on political power. Syria strongly opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and was accused by U.S. government officials of supplying aid to Iraq and helping Iraqi officials to escape from U.S. forces. The United States later also accused Syria of permitting militants to infilitrate into Iraq. A new cabinet with a mandate to push reforms forward was appointed in Sept., 2003, but subsequently there was little noticeable political or economic reform.
In Oct., 2003, Israel struck at what it called a terrorist training base in Syria in retaliation for suicide-bombing attacks in Israel; it was the first Israeli strike against Syrian territory in 20 years. Simmering grievances among the nation's Kurds erupted into rare antigovernment protests in NE Syria in Mar., 2004.
In Aug. and Sept., 2004, Syria blatantly forced Lebanon to extend President Lahoud's term, an act that was denounced by the UN Security Council. The Feb., 2005, assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, who had opposed Syrian interference in Lebanon, led to anti-Syrian demonstrations in Lebanon and increased international pressure on Syria. Syria subsequently agreed to withdraw from Lebanon, and by the end of Apr., 2005, the withdrawal was completed. Syria nonetheless retained considerable influence in Lebanon.
A UN investigation into Hariri's killing implicated senior Syrian and Lebanese officials, but Syria refused to allow UN investigators to interview high-ranking Syrian officials, leading the Security Council to call unanimously for Syria to cooperate. Syria, however, vigorously rejected the vote and attempted to discredit the investigation, publicizing the recanting of one witness. However, a former Syrian vice president, Abdul Halim Khaddam, stated (Dec., 2005) that Syria had threatened Hariri and asserted that the assassination could not have happened without the support of high-ranking Syrian officials. (Khaddam, residing in Paris, also called for Assad to be removed from office.) Resistance to moving forward with the investigation from Syria's allies in Lebanon (most notably then-President Emile Lahoud and Hezbollah) blocked the Lebanese government from establishing an investigative tribunal and stalled any additional progress into 2008. By 2010, however, as the tribunal's investigation progressed, it appeared more likely to indicted members of Hezbollah than Syrian officials; in Apr., 2009, the four Lebanese officers who had been held since 2005 in connection with the case were released for lack of evidence.
Assad was reelected in May, 2007, by referendum (he was the only candidate). In Sept., 2007, the Israeli air force attacked a site in N Syria that some reports suggested was a nuclear facility under construction. International Atomic Energy Agency, which called on Syria to cooperate, ultimately concluded in its reports (2008, 2009, 2011) that evidence indicated that the facility was a nuclear reactor. Syria asserted the installation was a missile facilty. Also in 2009 the IAEA said it had found traces of processed uranium at another site, and it subsequently accused Syria of failing to cooperate.
An Arab League summit held in Syria in Mar., 2008, was attended by only half the Arab heads of state, as many sent lower-ranking officials as a protest against Syria's backing of Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanon. In Oct., 2008, U.S. forces launched a raid into Syria from Iraq in which U.S. sources claimed a key figure in the Iraq insurgency was killed; Syria denounced the attack, saying only civilians were killed, and mounted demonstrations against the attack.
Beginning in Mar., 2011, Syria faced ongoing antigovernment demonstrations in a number of cities similar to those in other parts of the Arab world. The protests were especially persistent early on in the southern city of Deraa; Homs, Hama, and many other locations subsequently became centers of protest. Only Damascus and Aleppo were largely free of protests. The government issued some concessions in response, including granting citizenship to thousands of Kurds in NE Syria, ending the 48-year state of emergency, and (later) allowing some opposition parties, but it also accused its opponents of armed insurrection and violently suppressed protests. There also were anti-Alawite attacks by government opponents. Antigovernment demonstrations nonetheless continued, and the unrest turned into civil war as some troops defected and fought against government forces and others also took up arms.
In September leaders of opposition groups announced the formation of the Syrian National Council, but the opposition continued to lack unity and the council was dominated by exile groups. The Arab League suspended Syria's membership and imposed some economic sanctions in November; other nations also imposed sanctions in 2011 and 2012. In December, Arab League monitors entered Syria to oversee an agreement intended to end the violence, but they had no effect on the situation. The violence continued in 2012, with deadly fighting in many urban areas; government forces were accused of brutally targeting civilians and of killing them in mass executions. A new constitution was approved by 90% of those voting in a February referendum, but Assad's opponents called the result as a sham. The opposition also boycotted the subsequent May parliamentary elections.
Former UN head Kofi Annan negotiated a cease-fire in Apr., 2012, but it was quickly violated and never really took effect. The associated UN observers were withdrawn in August; also that month the Syria prime minister defected. In June, relations with Turkey became tense after Syria downed a Turkish fighter jet that had crossed into Syrian airspace; the Turkish government was a strong critic of Assad's attempts to crush the uprising. In October, cross-border fire into Turkey led to recurring retaliatory bombardment by Turkish forces. There were similar incidents involving Jordan and Israel, and subsequently occasional air strikes by Israel in Syria that were said to be directed at military supplies for Hezbollah.
A more broadly based opposition National Coalition was established in Nov., 2012, as a result of international pressure on opposition groups inside and outside Syria to unify, and some 100 nations subsequently recognized the group. Attempts to established a broadly supported opposition government, however, proved difficult. Opposition fighters remained ethnically and religiously fragmented, with militant Islamists, including some aligned with Al Qaeda and others from outside Syria, becoming increasingly significant and rejecting cooperation with other rebels. Kurdish groups sought to established an autonomous Kurdish area. The civil war was increasingly marked by the opposition's divisions, with rebel groups sometimes fighting each other. In Jan., 2014, an alliance of Syrian rebel forces engaged in prolonged fighting in N Syria with an Al Qaeda–aligned rebel group that included many foreigners and was accused of serious human rights abuses. Shiite fighters from other nations, especially Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, became an increasing and significant component of those forces fighting in support of the government in 2013.
By July, 2013, more than 100,000 were believed to have died in the fighting since Mar., 2011 (according to UN estimates; the United Nations subsequently stopped updating its estimates because it could not verify the figures). The conflict had spread to Damascus and Aleppo; the latter's old city was severely damaged by fighting. The government controlled or contested much of E Syria, making gains there by in 2013, while various rebel groups were in control mainly in the north and west. Many people had been arrested or had disappeared while in government custody, and at least 2 million had fled the country and more than 4 million were displaced inside Syria by September, 2013.
Both government and rebel forces were accused of using chemical weapons, but though there was evidence of the use of sarin, definitive proof was difficult to come by. An Aug., 2013, chemical attack in Damascus in which more than 1,300 died was linked by Western governments to the government, and subsequently, under threat of U.S. attack, the Assad regime agreed to the supervised destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile. A December UN report confirmed that the August attack involved chemical weapons, and found credible evidence of the weapons probably use in a number of prior incidents. Both sides in the conflict have also been accused by human-rights groups of committing war crimes.